no avatar

Elizabeth R. Griffin Research Foundation makes a positive difference around the globe

Tanja Moody • Apr 8, 2013 at 10:53 AM

When Dobyns-Bennett High School graduate Elizabeth "Beth" Griffin died in 1997 from a disease contracted while working as a research assistant, it was a personal tragedy for her family, according to James Welch, a family friend.

"Her death received national attention and was televised on ‘20/20,’ because she was young, beautiful and vivacious, and this tragedy occurred to her," Welch said. "Her family then took her death toward a positive outcome, to work with the research community to make things better, so there wouldn’t be any more ‘Beth Griffin tragedy.’"

The Elizabeth R. Griffin Research Foundation was established in Beth’s memory, according to Welch, who eventually became the non-profit organization’s executive director at the urging of her father, the late William C. Griffin. Aside from attending church with the family, Welch also had taught Beth and her sister during his tenure as an eighth-grade history teacher at Robinson Middle School.

"Beth was a smart student," Welch remembered. "But she was also an excellent dancer. She would literally dance from one class to another. Her career choice when she finished college was to either be a primate research worker or to be a captain of the dance team at the Atlanta Olympics. She wanted to make an impact though, so she was perhaps following her academic love more."

While Beth worked at Yerkes Regional Primate Research Center at Emory University in Atlanta, she contracted the B virus after a preventable exposure to one of her eyes during a routine physical on the primates. The symptoms of the disease, carried by Macaque monkeys, were not immediately diagnosed and treatment was delayed. Beth became very ill and eventually was paralyzed.

"So Beth, The Dancer, would have been no more, even if she’d recuperated," Welch said.

The Foundation was established to encourage safer practices in research facilities and to raise awareness for those who respond to accidents in those environments. Beth’s mother Caryl, a former nurse, serves on the Foundation’s Board of Directors, and Beth’s sister, Kimberly Griffin Hicks, a pediatrician, is an honorary board member. Welch and Beth’s mother regularly travel worldwide to speak on behalf of the Foundation.

One of the Foundation’s early accomplishments included its efforts with the Association of Primate Veterinarians to create Medical Alert Information Cards, now used throughout the world by people who work with macaques.

"Primate workers carry those cards so that if they exhibit certain symptoms, doctors are alerted to the fact that they may not have the same virus as someone from the general public," Welch said.

The Foundation’s global influence is enormous, according to Welch, who said much of the group’s work involves teaching how to mitigate risk in low-resource areas where most outbreaks occur.

"When we get involved, we find a local champion to help us make things happen," he said. "We believe solutions to problems have to be local, practical and sustainable. No experts we hire can make things happen. The local champions will be the ones who figure out what’s practical in their environment and what’s sustainable with their resources."

The Foundation’s funding comes from grants, partnerships with larger organizations and individual donations.

For more information about the Elizabeth R. Griffin Research Foundation, or to make a donation, visit the website at http://www.ergriffinresearch.org/ or call 423-612-7233.

Recommended for You